In the fall of 2009, Andrei Arshavin had the world at his feet. His quadruple at Anfield, a goal-scoring feat that ultimately helped Manchester United more than it did Arsenal, was still recent history. He was quickly becoming one of the game’s most recognizable stars, just in time for the 2010 World Cup.
But Russia, coming off a hugely successful European Championships, didn’t qualify. They finished second in the same group as 2006 semi-finalists Germany, earning a straightforward-looking play-off against Slovenia. Russia won the home leg 2-1, but lost 1-0 in the return fixture; they were eliminated on away goals. Humiliatingly, they finished the second leg with only nine men.
In truth, Arshavin had begun to fade before that loss. “Maybe my game did not look so bad from the outside, but inside I felt that I was not a part of the team,” Arshavin said after the first leg in Moscow. Even then, he understood what failure to qualify would mean for himself and for his country: “To stay out means to be on the sidelines of football for a time”.
Sadly, Arshavin’s belief in the inherent importance of top level international competition is rejected by most modern footballers, many of whom swear by the Champions League. Arshavin’s work as the face of Russia’s successful bid to host the 2018 World Cup was a “distraction”, according to some Arsenal fans. Whether or not Arshavin was indeed distracted by those ambassadorial responsibilities, his clear commitment to the Russian cause showed that he genuinely appreciates the international game.
Maybe that’s because Arshavin, unlike many of his British contemporaries, owes his current status to international football. Arshavin’s transfer to Arsenal in January of 2009 resulted largely from his performance at the 2008 European Championships, where he scored against Holland to catapult Russia into the semi-finals. Were it not for the virtuosity of that display, Arshavin might well have remained at Zenit St. Petersburg, the club with whom he won the Uefa Cup in the season leading up to the tournament in Austria and Switzerland.
After those successes, Russia’s failure to qualify for the World Cup in South Africa left Arshavin understandably disappointed.
He failed to recover. By the spring of 2010, the hollow-cheeked wizard had been replaced by a fatter, more prosaic version. The British press – not known for its sympathy – had no time for the Russian’s “sulkiness”. Indeed, British football as a whole quickly united against Arshavin, misconstruing his post-Slovenia blues as either an attempt to weasel more money out of Arsenal or, even worse, an example of typically foreign eccentricity.
By 2012, Arsenal were desperate to offload Arshavin; his subsequent move to Zenit St. Petersburg surprised few and saddened no one.
Both club and player benefitted from the divorce. With Arshavin out of the way, Tomas Rosicky began to assert himself, stringing together a series of impressive performances from attacking midfield. Arsenal regained form and finished third in the league, qualifying automatically for the Champions League.
At Zenit, Arshavin gradually improved. He benefitted from increased game time and the comfort of his home country, as well as from a national media more tolerant of his idiosyncrasies.
Certainly, the player who has started this year’s European Championships is a far cry from the one whose form dipped so drastically eighteen months ago. Because Arshavin lacks the pace of players like Arjen Robben and Cristiano Ronaldo, he relies on subtle body movements and clever, precise dribbling to outwit defenders. He performed superbly against the Czech Republic — admittedly, not a team renowned for defensive prowess — orchestrating every Russian attack from a flexible left-wing position. Dick Advocaat was full of praise for his star: “He worked very hard and played very well,” the former-Rangers manager said. “He is a very important player for us. I am very positive about him.”
The Czech Republic performance, coupled with another solid display against Poland, is further evidence of Arshavin’s love-affair with international football. Heavily concentrated tournament football – a phenomenon that, sadly, will disappear in 2012 when the European Championships expand to 24 teams — brings out Arshavin’s best. He thrives under intense pressure, but struggles for motivation during the long slog of the league season. And, vitally, he cares.
Not every top-flight footballer does. In his 2008 autobiography, Jamie Carragher expressed a total lack of interest in the English national team. In 2010, just hours after England were eliminated from the World Cup, pictures of a cigar-smoking Aaron Lennon surfaced on the Internet. Fans and journalists roundly criticized both players. As a nation, England is appalled by the apathy that undermines international football.
Arshavin rejects such apathy. He has consistently applied himself to the international cause, working hard for the country he genuinely loves. Arshavin is one of the game’s few “big tournament players” – a class of professionals who place country ahead of club and are confident enough to perform well under intense media scrutiny.
Russia close out Group A on Saturday against Greece, perhaps the competition’s weakest outfit. Assuming that they win that match, Russia will play the second-placed team from Group B – potentially a powerhouse – in the quarter-finals.
As in 2008, Russia will look for inspiration to the enigmatic talents of Andrei Arshavin.